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Navigating the gym in the new year: A common-sense guide
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This won't hurt a bit...
This won't hurt a bit... (Thinkstock)
T

he holiday season has come and gone, and with it the yearly feeding frenzy that is the American holiday experience. Between that Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings, the latke overload of Hanukkah, a massive Christmas ham, and that New Year's Eve midnight buffet you surely regret, many of us are entering 2014 a bit more bloated than we were when we bought that first bag of Halloween candy way back in October. We might also be feeling tired, out-of-sorts, and ready to make a significant lifestyle change.

Enter the resolution to get fit. Annual polls consistently put "getting back in shape" and/or "being healthier" in the top five resolutions made in our country. As part of that collective commitment to wellness, many of us will be joining gyms as brand-new members. The booming $10 billion fitness industry typically enrolls twice as many individuals in January than in August each year. (Perhaps you've noticed the flurry of advertisements for membership deals and special offers.) What's good for the industry, however, can be tough on individual gyms and long-time members, as eager newbies flock to the classes, cardio machines, weight rooms, and the "hot" rooms... often without any idea of gym etiquette or how frustrating the influx of bodies can be for gym regulars who just want to work out and get out.

The following simple tips can help keep everyone healthy and happy.

Dress appropriately
You are not in junior high P.E. class any longer, so don't dig out your old uniform of tank top and baggy shorts and head off to down-dog in a room full of strangers. (They're called "yoga pants" for a reason.) Different fitness regimens call for different types of clothing, meant to keep you comfortable and all your body parts in the right place as you execute your exercises. Ask the person who signs you up at the front desk what people usually wear to a Pilates class or CrossFit or whatever. Many facilities have on-site boutiques where they will be happy to outfit you with the appropriate clothing. You don't have to spend a wad. Bargains are available online and elsewhere. Just be sure that everything you wear to the gym is clean and well-fitting, without gaps or holes that might offer a peep at something no one really wants to see.

Respect everyone's personal space
Save for public transportation and Foo Fighters concerts, Americans expect a cushion of 18 inches or more of air between themselves and the next American. This holds doubly true when we are wearing exercise clothing (see above) and sweating. Give people room to move. Don't stand over the guy on the lat pull-down machine, mouth-breathing down his neck while you wait for your turn.

"Space" takes on an even deeper sense of importance in group classes like Zumba, spin, and the like. Human beings are territorial — hardwired to seek a certain place when they regularly engage in an activity. This is why we usually head to the same stall every time we visit the bathroom at work. It's also why gym regulars usually head to the same spot in the room every time they attend a class. Be sensitive to this. While it's true that no one "owns" a particular position in a group exercise room, the fact is that longtime participants have their favorite places, and they feel possessive of them. Before you park your yoga mat in a particular spot, you might ask the instructor if that's a good place for you to be. He or she may want to position you somewhere else — not only to keep the peace, but also possibly to position you near another, more experienced member who might offer a good example of how certain moves are done correctly.

Don't hog the machines
Whatever you do, do not camp out on the equipment in between sets of your exercises, and certainly don't sit there playing around with your phone. There is an understood rule in fitness facilities that people must share equipment — especially during busy times — so be polite. Ask if you can "work in" with another member, and get off as soon as you have finished.

If your gym posts time limits on the cardio machines, observe those limits — including your warm-up, cool-down, and time to wipe the machine. If there is no designated time posted, but you see a line forming, just be courteous, and don't spend more than 30 minutes, maximum, while others are waiting.

Silence is golden
Gyms are places to work out, not necessarily to make new friends. Many athletes require a certain degree of mental focus to achieve their objectives each day. If you suddenly yell, "Hi, my name's Doug McTactless; what's yours?" in the ear of a gal about to attempt her deadlift one-rep max, don't be surprised if she gives you more than an earful right back.

Fitness facilities are funny places. Over time, regulars will form a sort of community — this is one of the many additional benefits you can look forward to if you stick with your new regimen — but it takes time to be absorbed into these ranks. Be patient. Don't push. Sooner or later, if you seem polite and approachable, someone will talk to you.

And if you are the shy type who would rather not have anyone approach you, wear earbuds, which are the universal gym signal to "leave me alone."

Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene
Carry a towel as you work out. Use the special germ-killing spray most facilities provide. Wipe down all equipment before and after you use it. This isn't just a courtesy to keep from sharing sweat and dead skin cells (although that is gross), it's an essential step in preventing the spread of MRSA, staph, and other potentially hazardous infections that would otherwise thrive in warm, moist settings like gyms and fitness studios.

Don't be a stinker. Either use a good antiperspirant or deodorant or take a quick rinse before you hit the gym floor. Nothing is worse than trying to take a deep, cleansing breath when the person next to you smells like ammoniated garlic. On the other hand, don't try to smell too good, either. That deep, cleansing breath can also make the person next to you gag if he or she ends up with a lungful of cologne. If you ignore these instructions, don't be surprised if the manager or another staff member takes you aside and sends you to the showers. I've seen it happen, and it's embarrassing for all concerned.

Not just for newbies
While fitness newcomers may have lots to learn as they take their first steps on the road to better health, regulars have an even more important obligation to etiquette. Why? Because you are the standard others will follow. Frustrating as it might be to find your usual workout place a little busier than you are used to, only by setting the stage and leading by example can you help everyone assimilate more quickly and comfortably. Be kind. Be patient. If you see someone new, obviously lost or confused, ask if you can help. In the end, we would all benefit if more of us were encouraged and motivated to stick to our New Year's resolutions to be better, more healthful, more productive members of society. After all, Halloween is only nine short months away.

Leslie Turnbull
Leslie Turnbull is a Harvard-educated anthropologist with over 20 years' experience as a development officer and consultant. She cares for three children, two dogs, and one husband. When not sticking her nose into other peoples' business, she enjoys surfing, cooking, and writing (often bad) poetry.

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